Photography by Danny Clinch
A man asks a gypsy for a hex to get his woman back. A father tries to reach his little girl in Memphis. Old folks watch to see whether a young love will endure…
Chuck Berry’s best songs are short stories, far more carefully crafted than most of us ever realized. A master of “Show, don’t tell,” he packed meaning and wordplay into even his most frivolous lyrics.
William Maxwell, professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University, points out “the absolute specificity of his references. His work is full of commodities, particular products from postwar America—TV dinners and ginger ale; the Cadillac, the V-8 Ford—and he understood that each one of those products carried its own myth.”
He also invented products—for example, a “coffee-colored Cadillac”—alliteration that also carried a racial subtext, as did “brown-eyed handsome man.”
“He said he got his diction from Nat King Cole—that generation is an influence on Chuck Berry that we tend not to remember,” Maxwell remarks. “If you watch Berry on TV introducing ‘Roll Over Beethoven,’ he talks with a very formal, precise, stagey, hyper-elaborate English. It’s what’s called ‘hypercorrection,’ and he’s using it for a specific reason. The Nat King Cole generation was trying to, without betraying their black musical roots, step into the white spaces where the real money and influence were. Berry uses the same half-serious, half-ironic formality.”
He moved adroitly between black and white worlds, and he often used black speech in literary ways—rhyming “one hundred and four” with “do no mo’,” for example. “He had a magnetic attention to words,” Maxwell says, “and he understood the sounds of various kinds of American language. He developed a poet’s mastery of ‘code-switching,’ something common in African-American speakers who need to address multiple communities at home and at work.”
He also mastered syntax: “Instead of savoring Alma’s solemn loving I was suffering Daddy’s solid licking,” Berry wrote in his autobiography, a syntactical parallelism that would have satisfied a teacher of rhetoric in ancient Rome. About losing his virginity, he wrote, “I was manmade in an instant.” And he sounded positively Elizabethan when describing lust: “Heavy was the frustration that two female nurses caused within me.”
In his lyrics, “there’s a lot of internal rhyme and half-rhyme,” Maxwell notes. “‘Hill’ and ‘Coupe de Ville,’ and then ‘Cad-ill-ac’ repeats that, and ‘rollin’’ and ‘will’… and he makes all this dense rhyme sound perfectly natural.” When he writes about being arrested—“I was fingerprinted, photographed, weighed, wished well, and wooed for autographs”—you have alliteration with the W’s, “but what you also have is an incredibly varied selection of following vowels—A-I-E-O almost in perfect order,” remarks Maxwell. “And the words he coined were amazing. ‘Motorvatin’—turning a noun into a verb. ‘Botheration,’ ‘malpublicity,’ ‘settle-minded,’ ‘hospitaboo’ [hospitality tainted by taboo].”
Berry’s playful fusing of common words, doubling their descriptiveness, folded right into a long African-American speech tradition. Maxwell digs out a 1934 essay written by Zora Neale Hurston at the end of the Harlem Renaissance, describing “the will to adorn,” to renovate and redecorate American English and make it one’s own.
In Berry’s songs, continues Maxwell, “you have a high level of internal music in the lyrics, and the complexity of all the interesting sound repetitions. At the same time, however, you have all that narrative energy, all of that storytelling. It’s really an elaborate and difficult combination to pull off.” Then you add the compelling stage presence. “Oh yeah, and basically inventing how rock ’n’ roll musicians of every later generation would play the guitar.
“He was a genius,” Maxwell concludes. “This town produced T.S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams, but Chuck Berry was every bit as significant, I think, for American culture.”
The Last Word
In October, on his 90th birthday, Chuck Berry announced that his final record was in the works. Titled CHUCK, it contains both old and new material, with most of it written over the past three years. It's set for release on June 16. A few days after his death, Berry's family released the first single, "Big Boys," featuring guest appearances by Tom Morello and Nathaniel Rateliff of Rage Against the Machine. Next month, we'll take a closer look at the record, from its first track ("Wonderful Woman," written for Berry's wife) to its last ("Eyes of Man").